Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ in the Wilderness’

I’m listening to a lecture (‘Consuming Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals) by David Clough through Facebook Live right now. He has mentioned two things that caught my attention. The first is an interpretation of Mark 1.13, which contains the statement that ‘He [Christ] was with the wild animals…’ Clough suggested that this refers to Isaiah 11.1 -9’s Peaceable Kingdom. I had never understood that line, and I’ll have to think about this more, but it’s a marvelous reading that would really impact how I hear Mark 1.14-15, where Jesus (following the arrest of John the Baptist) goes into Galilee ‘proclaiming the good news of God’ which contains the claim ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’

The second is the art series by Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ in the Wilderness’, which may be inspired by Mark 1.13. It’s a beautiful series. And according to Clough, Spencer depicts the animals mentioned in Jesus’ sermons, imagining that he encountered them in the wilderness. Here are some samples:

Christ in the Wilderness—the Scorpion
Christ in the Wilderness—the Hen
Christ in the Wilderness—the Foxes
Christ in the Wilderness—the Lilies
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Interview: discussing the Saint John’s Bible with Jonathan Homrighausen

Jonathan Homrighausen is a PhD candidate at Duke University, working on Hebrew Bible. He’s also a writer and scholar on Scripture, art, and interreligious dialogue. While he was working on his MA at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, he began researching The Saint John’s Bible. His interest continued to develop to the point that he wrote a book about it: Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Liturgical Press, 2018), which ‘explores the call to social ethics in The Saint John’s Bible, the first major handwritten and hand-illuminated Christian Bible since the invention of the printing press.’

If you’re interested in the history of the Bible, biblical manuscripts and their physicality, art and the Bible, the liturgical use of the Bible, or just the Bible, period, you’ll enjoy this interview. Here’s the questions I asked Jonathan:

  1. First, what is The Saint John’s Bible? When, where, and how did it come about?
  2. Can you tell us about your professional training and how The Saint John’s Bible became of interest to you?
  3. I’ve read that this is the first Bible of its kind made since the popularization of the printing press. What does this mean and how does it help us understand the history of the Bible?
  4. Many of us might not think much about the intersection between art and the Bible. How does The Saint John’s Bible shed light on that relationship?
  5. My friend, Michael Barber of the Augustine Institute in Denver, has said something to the extent that we sometimes forget the Bible’s purpose was liturgical or sacramental long before it became an object of research. How does The Saint John’s Bible help us think about the liturgical purpose of the Bible?
  6. Your book, Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible, ‘explores the social ethics in The Saint John’s Bible’. How does this Bible uniquely provoke ethical/moral thinking? Or, another way of asking: How does the Bible provoke ethical/moral thinking in a way that’s different from any other Bible I might purchase?
  7. If I wanted to see The Saint John’s Bible, what would I have to do?

Recently read: Taylor’s ‘What Did Jesus Look Like?’

Joan E. Taylor, What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018).

Joan E. Taylor’s What Did Jesus Look Like? is a unique intersection of historical Jesus studies and art history with some theological and liturgical history thrown into the mix. Chapters 2-9 focus on what we might call the ‘reception history’ of Jesus’ appearance. In these chapters we learn about how Jesus has morphed over the centuries, whether he is a white European man (with which we are accustom); the ‘Byzantine Cosmocrator’; a younger looking man; a new Moses; a wise, bearded philosopher; or an unkempt vagabond. Sacred images of Jesus ranging from ‘The Veronica’ (pp. 30-37) to the Turn Shroud (pp. 58-66) are treated along with various icons, paintings, statues, etc.

For those interested in historical Jesus studies, chapters 10-11 are key. Taylor reminds us that little is said about Jesus’ appearance and nothing is said about any unique characteristics. In other words, ‘He was ordinary-looking.’ (p. 155) As a Judean who lived in Galilee, the forensics from skeletal remains of similar men from Jesus’ time, and literary descriptions of Judeans, can help us better understand how he may have appeared. Taylor evaluates the average height, appearance (including skin color/tone), hair (head and face), physique, clothing, shoes, and other aspects of dress, including differences between wealthier and poorer people’s clothing and gendered aspects of clothing.

Physically, Taylor concludes that Jesus, if as average as we imagine him to be, ‘would have been about 166 cm (5 feet 5 inches) tall, with olive-brown skin, brown-black hair and brown eyes. He was a man of “Middle Eastern appearance”, whose ethnicity can be compared to Iraqi Jews of today.’ (p. 194) She ends the book noting that this discussion regarding Jesus’ appearance isn’t settled but that she hopes that this book contributes and that it challenges modern artists to rethink how they depict Jesus.

A final note on this book. Here’s the picture Taylor drew of how she imagined Jesus (obviously black-and-white so lacking other detail):

From p. 192

It reminded me of one of my favorite TV Jesuses: the Jesus from ‘Jesus: His Life’ by The History Channel. Here are a couple images of Greg Barnett from the miniseries:

Seeing that this series is from 2019, it shows vast improvement over the Jesus from The Bible miniseries from 2013. Here’s that Jesus played by Diogo Morgado:

This latter Jesus is too pretty. He looks like the Jesus of traditional European art. But let’s end on a positive note with another one of my favorite Jesuses: Selva Rasalingam from the 2014-2015 dramatized ‘word-for-word adaptation’ of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Here are a couple shots of this Jesus: